Storytelling plays a vital role in Before Tomorrow, its characters turning to myths and fables to explain a world increasingly beyond their understanding and control. The year is around 1840, and within a small Inuit tribe, tales spread about strange interactions between Inuits and mysterious white visitors. These rumors feel secondary, however, to the tribe’s more immediate, day-to-day tasks, most notably the drying of fish on a nearby island: Elderly Ningiuq (Madeline Ivalu) travels there with sweet-tempered grandson Maniq (Paul-Dylan Ivalu) and her longtime friend Kutuguk (Mary Qulitalik), whose fading health makes the expedition a kind of farewell voyage. But death on a much larger scale waits for Ningiuq and Maniq, as they later return to find the entire tribe killed by exposure to the fabled white explorers and their foreign germs. Finding respite from the brutal elements in a nearby cave but stripped of all other human connection, Ningiuq’s considerations of her own mortality take on a new urgency. What will happen to Maniq when she is gone?
To quell their isolation and inner turmoil, they tell each other stories: fantastical creation myths for indigenous animals; Maniq’s excited recapping of how he killed his first seal; tales of an unspecified promised land that they will travel to soon, very soon. And while frequent shots of the unforgiving landscape—all wind-swept snow and endless icy plains—provide reminders of their dire situation, Before Tomorrow has a real respect for the ability of myth to build a kind of psychological shelter in the face of impossible circumstances.
With its simple story and archetypal characters, Before Tomorrow often attains the elemental power of one of Ningiuq’s fables. It takes a while, though, before the film gathers enough narrative steam to justify the comparison. Ms. Ivalu and Marie-Hélène Cousineau direct the opening stretches of the film in quick, elliptical snatches: the catching of fish, the extinguishing of fires, and the movement of boats through the icy water. While such details can be fascinating in an anthropological sense, they don’t allow us much insight into the bond between grandmother and grandson as they take off on their fish-drying expedition. Without this emotional anchor, Before Tomorrow flirts precariously with becoming a kind of National Geographic special, albeit a particularly well-observed and ethereal one.
Once Ningiuq and Maniq discover the pox-covered corpses of their family and friends, however, Before Tomorrow‘s plumbs its last-two-people-on-Earth story in a manner at once strikingly allegorical and heartbreakingly specific. Much of the film’s second half consists of fireside conversations between Ningiuq and Maniq as she attempts to comfort her grandson, who will later tend to her wounds after a wolf attack. Ivalu and Cousineau display remarkable patience in these scenes, with lengthy, static takes that catch the vocal and physical nuances between the two actors as they pass the time in their self-made cocoon. There’s a lovely familiarity here, no doubt partially attributable to the fact that the actors are actually related. Yet the camera’s sorrowful empathy proves just as important to explaining Before Tomorrow‘s slow-building resonance.
Mortality and bodily decay hang over Before Tomorrow, most notably in an elongated sequence where Ningiuq quietly moans in pain as Maniq applies seal fat to her wounds. Ivalu and Cousineau couple this specter of death with an understanding of the deep reservoirs of feeling that course between the characters. Their most elegant move, though, comes when they take a step back at film’s end to remind us of the dozens of Inuits lost to the callousness of foreign interlopers. The camera floats through a past tribal gathering, full of smiling faces whose lives carry on only in the sharing of memories. We may not know them intimately, but Before Tomorrow invites us to use our understanding of Ningiuq and Maniq as a means of grappling with the larger tragedy that befell the Inuits. Like all great stories, it paradoxically allows us access to the big picture by bringing us gradually, hauntingly close.